Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amsterdam 9.7.1998: Mythopoeic Imaginings, Gawking and Glomming Tourists

Leaving Amsterdam—gray skies, a slight oppressiveness to the weather after two rather nice days. And I’m thinking desultory thoughts—about why some cities and places rather than others attract artists; and about what voice one uses to write a travelogue here, now, at the end of the 20th century.

About the first question: it’s clear that Amsterdam is one of those cities. Steve and I felt that immediately. I wonder why. There’s, of course, that intangible thing called charm: the small grachts, whose scale helps them retain the small perspective so essential to good art, which always has to find the world in the grain of sand; ad the way in which each gracht, still water and reflected sky, creates a quiet little world of its own in a bustling city.

There’s also the . . . what? whiff of decay? The old houses, the faded glory, the omnipresent sex industry, the drugs: these form a moist and fertile bed for creativity, which never bubbles up so easily in dry and sun-scorched worlds. And there’s the alternate economy of small boutiques, flea markets, black markets—an economy of barter, exchange, tom-foolery and trickery—that always thrives in such a city.

Somehow, a thriving artistic culture goes hand in hand with such an economic culture—I’m not quite sure why. Is it that artists manqué find it so easy to fit into an economy of barter and trade? If one can’t print or write, one can always collect a few bright gewgaws and fob them off to unwitting tourists (and the tourist thing is part of the equation)? Transmutation of another sort than outright artistic creation . . . .

And there are all those legends . . . . Suzanne thinks her house was built by Portuguese Jews, though on what basis was never clear to us. And yesterday, in the red light district, we toured several old houses owned by a Protestant religious community with which Karel’s brother Hermann J. is loosely associated. He told us that the community’s chapel just may have been a synagogue in the 17th century . . . on what basis, it wasn’t ever quite clear to us. Another section of the house just might, just possibly, have been a monastery at some time . . . . Artistic places have (or foster?) mythopoeic imaginations.

And then there are all those charming little houses built just to the human scale, and full of fascinating little details—the various gables, the name plaques, the inscriptions over doorways, the tiny patios tucked away in back. Worlds within worlds . . . .

About the second question: no American with any pretensions to culture ever keeps a travelogue in Europe without hearing echoes of previous “cultured” travelers—Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, even, God help us, Twain.

No. That’s not quite what I wanted to say, to notice. It’s more about the pressure of European culture, its sheer weight and density, its givenness and facticity, its sublimely arrogant assertiveness. We colonials have always measured ourselves against it—had to do so—and have found ourselves wanting. It’s the very vacuum that makes us have to travel in Europe, after all: here I am, all empty America; fill me up, please.

And today as we drove out of Amsterdam, I suddenly wondered if it really matters, after all. I despise those Americans who are crassly unperturbed at their lack of polish, but I also wonder whether that’s not becoming, simply, the status quo everywhere. Which is to say, the center of cultural gravity has shifted west; Europeans travel to America not simply to feel superior, but to encounter an exotic culture that they can now identify as culture.

No. That’s not quite it, either. The mind just somehow keeps slipping off track. Not sure what the point of all this was, which is to say, perhaps, I’m not sure who I am, at all.

Impressions piled on impressions: Tuesday (today), we did the obligatory tourist thing, going to the van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. An utterly tiring day in which we walked from early morning until nightfall.

The van Gogh left me curiously cold, perhaps because of the incessant roiling sea of (other) tourists who swept en masse around every painting and prevented us from taking them in. Two Americans, husband and wife, had blue jean jackets with red embroidery on black, advertising their affiliation with a movement to foster inner spiritual awareness.

Which made me, somehow, feel ashamed to be there with other worshipers at the shrine of excruciating, suicidal awareness. An interesting book I noticed as we left the gift shop studies this, how van Gogh has become a cult, has been made a cult. It’s probably a cliché to say so, but how ironic, how bleakly funny, that this driven, maniacal genius whose life was such a failure should now be the subject of such a gawking and glomming cult. Why, you can even get your van Gogh address book at the gift shop, or a set of van Gogh watercolors that will enhance your perception of things, if not your creativity. I didn’t buy one there, having bought one at a stationer’s the day before.

The surprise of the van Gogh collection was the collection of paintings showing Japanese influence. I hadn’t known much about them. Was intrigued by them, and was rather proud of myself for picking up on it in a painting of almond blossoms, before we came to the explicitly Japanese work.

Coffee and a much-needed breather in the van Gogh coffee shop, and then on to the next dragon, the very formidable Rijksmuseum, where we promised ourselves to be self-disciplined and only look at the Rembrandts and Vermeers.

Same problem here: tourists, other tourists, piled one atop each other, gawking and shoving and prattling away in a polyglot of tongues. But mostly French. I seem to have a talent for getting caught up in French tours. It happened in Dublin, and here again, in the Vermeer room.

They were all so small, but also so . . . dense . . . and so solid. So that even when you can see over their heads, you can’t approach the painting you want to see, because of the sheer density of French flesh cordoning it off.

I tried a tactic of moving to the least densely guarded paintings, and then, as the crowd shifted en masse in that direction, back to the one they’d just vacated, or semi-vacated. Only problem was, these French culture vultures seemed to have an unwritten rule that one moves only clockwise around the room, and out of the corners of my eyes, I could detect fierce little French glares that I was violating the rules. As Steve says, they’re very much pack animals, these French tourists.

And what to say about the Vermeers. Well, I’ve seen them. Yes, there was the old thrill of seeing paintings one has long admired in books, in their inimitable own colors. But I’d lie if I said that I forgot my tired feet and irritation at the pack in a rush of transcendence, as I gazed at the woman and her jug, the woman and her letter.

Then on to Rembrandt, which, despite the press of tourists, was easier to see (at least the “Night Watchman,” because of its size). I know nothing about the “Watchman,” but what struck me as I looked was how all the business of the painting seems to revolve around that light-surrounded little girl, with the dead fowl, as if she’s an unnoticed angelic presence in this intensely self-preoccupied, intensely male, world of statues and money, of guns and glory.

Is it possible to read the painting as Rembrandt’s unconscious statement about what was to come of the world of nature and the female, in the hands of modernity? On the one hand, it’s there, the angelic presence, giving radiance to the world of might and economic exchange. On the other hand, it’s there as a dead or disembodied presence, an unnoticed presence, a controlled and exploited one. It’s surrounded by all those men, so busy about their . . . well, their business.

I whispered a little of this to Steve, with an American teenager of mixed Anglo and Asian ancestry listening, I was to discover, since, after I had finished, he turned around to ask me if I thought a monkey’s paw was reaching up from behind the little girl. I told him I didn’t see it. He described it insistently. I pretended to see it, and told him I knew nothing about it.

Then on to a room with an Antwerp altar, passing on the way rooms of 17th-century Dutch furniture and medieval statuary and vestments. I liked these rooms, though we didn’t notice anything in them, to speak of. One had a skylight and a marble floor, creating an oasis in the crowded hot museum.

I’ve just looked up, as we near the German border: sheep on a hillside, an artificial one, mixed dark and white ones, all very small.

After Antwerp (a disappointment), a lunch of salad and sausage on bread, with wine (me) and beer (Steve). Then more walking, walking, through Rembrandtsplein and the Waterloo Market, much more commercial than the Noordmarket we’d gone to the day before.

Rembrandtsplein was chock full of young people. Coffee shops everywhere, with psychedelic entrances hinting at the drugs to be obtained within. The odd sex shop here and there. All a bit tawdry and unalluring.

Then on to dinner at Suzanne’s. She fixed Iranian dishes she had learned while married to her husband—two kinds of rice, one with dill, potatoes, and some kind of white beans; a red bean and beef dish with dried lemons and chopped greens; a lamb and eggplant dish with tomatoes (or were the lemons in this dish?); and salad and fruit in custard cause, which the Dutch call something sounding like “fla,” (or which they may, then have learned from the Spanish?).

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